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What is a wai? Why wai?

Thais usually don't shake hands but instead ‘wai’ which is raising both hands gracefully and unhurriedly, palm to palm, fingers together and close to the body, bringing them in a prayer- like gesture to the head while bowing slightly. The ‘wai’ is the traditional Thai greeting. Why wai? To Thai people, it’s second nature. If you are a foreigner in Thailand, you will show and receive respect by following this customary greeting, although many Thais will also (somewhat reluctantly) accept a handshake from you.

The wai is a graceful, totally unique action practiced throughout Thailand. It plays a very important part in showing respect, and is central to Thai etiquette. For the most part Thais do not want to touch your sweaty, grubby little hands, so it's a good idea to learn how to wai. The European kiss-on-each-cheek-greeting will certainly alarm a Thai, especially if you are a man doing this to a woman who isn't your wife or girlfriend!

The wai can be very confusing for anyone not brought up with it. This is especially at large gatherings when, if not familiar with this kind of situation, you may feel like you have been waiing, bowing and smiling a hundred times. However, the plus side is that being spontaneously wai-ed to by others is a pleasant feeling!

When being wai-ed to (by an adult, that is), you would be considered impolite if you didn't return or at least acknowledge the wai. This is something especially difficult to do when you are carrying a lot of bags or in the middle of eating dinner with your hands full, and someone offers an unexoected wai. At the very least, you can grunt and nod! It doesn’t really matter if you have something in your hands at the time – the mobile phone-between-palms wai is a familiar sight in Thailand! Only monks and royalty do not need to return a wai. More details on how to why in an article by 'Wit' here.

As well as being a greeting, a wai is a show of respect. It can be difficult to determine when you should wai or when someone should wai you. As a foreigner, it's just easiest to wai important people as soon as possible. If someone is going to wai you first, they probably already beat you to it.

However, if you really want to know when to wai, this depends on your relationship to the other person. The person of higher social status will always be wai-ed to. Your bank manager, company owner, school headmaster and local mayor would all expect an unprompted wai, for example. You inevitably have only a few seconds to decide this when you meet, but it's best to err on the side of waiing first if you are unsure.

One easy determination is age. If someone is older than you, then you should wai them unless they are someone whom you employ, such as a housekeeper. Additionally, you probably wouldn’t wai anyone who you are paying for service, such as waiters, tailors, vendors, shopkeepers or taxi drivers. You also wouldn't wai your peers and friends, though Thai people that haven’t seen each other for a while often do. When leaving a party or other social gathering, you should probably wai everyone (though not necessarily individually!), as this is the polite way to excuse yourself from the festivities.

You will also wai when receiving a gift from a superior, as a sign of thanks. Make your wai before you reach to take the object. While listening to a Buddhist sermon, it is also customary to hold a wai during the entire programme. You may even notice that as drivers of vehicles pass a sacred monument, they will wai - even taking their hands off the wheel!

If all that wasn't confusing enough, there are different kinds of wais. The normal wai is with your hands pressed together at about chest level, presenting a slight bow with your body. The wai to a superior is with the tips of your fingers at nose level, still bowing your body. To convey the most respect and gratitude, you will wai with your fingertips at mouth level and present a deeper and longer bow.

The wai is a delicate, graceful gesture when performed by Thais. It may look somewhat more awkward and sometimes even comical when foreigners try it initially, but the attempt will still be most appreciated, as Thai people are very accepting in this regard. It might take you some time to perfect your technique, but this charming greeting will become second-nature in no time at all. Getting right is another thing – good luck!

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